Ohio Trip 9: Urban Concern

The second day of the Xenos conference began with a talk from a former teacher of the church, Lee Campbell, on suffering in the book of Job. He did a great job of pointing out how Job’s friends didn’t have a bad encouragement plan to begin with–they just flubbed it up after they got very far into it, and they had some bad theology in there, too.

What struck me most was that they invested a good bit of their time and resources to spend time with Job in his loss, even to the point of sitting with him a whole week without saying a word. Lee explained that rabbinic tradition calls this “sitting shiva” (sitting a week). It’s significant because it simply involves moving with the sufferer, being with them and feeling what he/she feels, because that’s what is needed more than advice or platitudes (which Job’s friends couldn’t resist offering later). When C.S. Lewis lost his wife, he said he wanted most to be around lots of people who would just “leave him alone”. I think I get that. Anyway, it was a great talk, and you can download it for free here.

The rest of the day took a decidedly urban-missional direction for me. I had signed up to tour Xenos’ urban mission over lunch, and it was an encouraging tour to take. Nearly 20 years ago some folks from Xenos took an interest in ministering to a poor urban neighborhood close to the Ohio State University campus. Today there are house churches, after-school programs, and an easily affordable Christian school in that neighborhood. The Harambee School, financed jointly by Xenos and by government grants, serves to educate about 100 kids from K-5th grade. And while other schools in the area can only get about 20% of their kids to pass the state tests, Harambee’s kids are passing at a rate of 67%. That’s pretty fantastic! They must be doing really good work.

On the tour we heard from James Brown, the director of the larger urban mission, and Alex Steinman, the principal of the school. They explained how the church engages the neighborhood holistically, not merely babysitting kids for a few hours each day, but ministering to entire families, entering into their lives where they live. Families invest huge chunks of time, many of them permanently moving into the neighborhood. Over time they’ve built lasting relationships with area residents, including the crack dealers on whose turf they’re treading. Ironically, they seem to get a warmer reception from the thugs than they do from the local churches, who hardly give them any help in their work (most of those churches are comprised of members who commute from far away). Somehow that’s funny and disgusting at the same time.

Back at the conference, I attended a workshop entitled “Untying the Urban Knot.” Lisa Gintz told us of her own relocation to a poor urban segment of town, and of the subsequent validation of her ministry that produced in the eyes of the residents. She, too, found that the local criminals warmed to her presence so that now her house is the safest place on the block. The drug lords warn their underlings not to touch her place because they like her, and they trust her. When asked by conference-goers if she felt safe there, she replied, “The safest place in the world to be is in the middle of God’s will.” Well put. And she’s definitely earned the right to speak about urban ministry.

The gist of her presentation was that building incarnational relationships is the only way to truly impact a community. It takes years to earn the trust of people who have learned so much distrust. And it takes years to learn how to relate to people from a culture so different from your own. One helpful bit of advice she gave was to start by reaching out to people within your own culture before you make the leap to people in a significantly different one. We tend to romanticize “ministry to the needy,” so there’s quite a revolving door in urban ministry. People come dreamy-eyed and last for a year or two then give up. They too often come solo, too, and that’s a recipe for burnout as well.

In the end I was encouraged and challenged to see and hear from those who have built their lives around giving to others. None of them struck me as highly religious or legalistic about it, but seemed genuinely and organically compelled to be doing what they’re doing.

There were other workshops that day, but I’ve written enough for now. Next, I’ll briefly tell about the conclusion to the summer institute and the home group that gathered afterwards, then I’ll move on to the last church I visited: Grace Gathering.

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